Well, I don’t get around much any more. Not out of the house. Not out of the city. But my ears float on over to the north of Scotland, I mean waaaaaaay north, fairly often to listen to Kris Drever. He sings about those full-empty places where he is from (Orkney). Places where the landscape widens the mind-frame and puts your life and loves in a kind of geological-time perspective. In other words, not a bad place to find one’s self in a global pandemic.
Kris Drever’s new album is great. Get it here or wherever. That’s the thesis.
Here’s the detail: Kris is a great lyricist. Here’s a verse from “Scapa Flow 1919.”
We were ragged we were dirty,
Though we knew; didn’t care,
Our only flag was a linen rag,
As lank and lousy as our hair,
Esprit de corps and dignity they ran off with our hope,
One day I robbed an officer,
I sold his iron cross for soap.
The lines do more than they need to: internal rhymes, alliteration. Hard, consonantal rhymes that end the verse oppose the more open ended rhymes in the rest of the verse. Anyway, an ABABCBC verse with all of that’s happening within the line (the rhythm and the imagistic detail) lead to a “hard” ending that reflects the war-time-stay-at-home desperation of the character. Not an easy feat.
Farther into the prosodic weeds: the last two lines are iambic. (I know “officer” is technically a dactyl, BTW, so don’t @ me, poets.) The first three lines are more anapestic, but they coalesce into tough alliterative iambs in the fourth line. None of this matters too much in the grand scheme of things. Still, if you can pick apart the scansion of a lyricists line and find that it fits the content perfectly, you know the writer has an ear. (And a head and a beating heart, too.)
I heard Kris Drever sing “Scapa Flow 1919” at Mareel in Shetland a couple of years ago. He introduced the song at Derek-Smalls-from-Spinal-Tap length during that concert. But we don’t really need the Wikipedia entry to understand the beauty of the song. Great world events occur and most of us just watch the tides. Shipwatching rather than shipbuilding.
From 1919 we go to 2020. The song after “Scapa Flow 1919” on the album is Kris’s pandemic-penned Covid song and certainly the best one I’ve heard. Using a -tweet- by Paul ‘Silky’ White, Kris shows off his guitar skills and his empathy skills at the same time on “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit.” This is the tweet:
Some things change
Some things stay the same
What you want
And what you need
May not be everything
So wind your necks in
For a little while
And hunker down
(In comparison, the latest elderly-whinge from Van Morrison (re: the Covid “conspiracy”) landed on my Spotify “New Releases” mix this morning and boy-howdy is that bad in a way that makes me wanna hide my Van Morrison vinyl collection in the sub-basement of memory.)
Finally, back to Kris: I’m a sucker for anyone who updates a traditional sound in a respectful way. (I don’t know what “respectful” means either — I guess it means that you get the sense that the musician knows from whence they sing; it’s not an affectation.) Kris’s stellar lyrics are married to a modern-traditional sound. The song “Where the World is Thin” is beautiful. “I’ll Always Leave the Light On” has a lovely reel. Just listen: you’ll get it.
So this is Kris Drever’s pandemic album. Made during his “isolation days” and bringing together the past and the present. It’s relevant, gorgeous, and clear-eyed about where we are now, where we are going, and what’s important.
There is a last time
You’ll ever hurt
In the dark and silent days
Before they cover you with dirt.
Trust me: it’s uplifting! Just listen: you’ll get it.
More Kris Drever: In folk tradition, he will teach you how to play his songs. Also check out the band Lau, of which Kris is a member.